Illini beat Spartans, becomes bowl game eligible under Lovie Smith

Game seized in biggest comeback in program history

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Illini beat Spartans, becomes bowl game eligible under Lovie Smith

The Illini Football team erupt in celebration after defeating the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. The Illini won 37-34.

The Illini Football team erupt in celebration after defeating the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. The Illini won 37-34.

jonathan bonaguro

The Illini Football team erupt in celebration after defeating the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. The Illini won 37-34.

jonathan bonaguro

jonathan bonaguro

The Illini Football team erupt in celebration after defeating the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. The Illini won 37-34.

By Miles Powers-Huang, Staff Writer

On fourth down with 45 seconds to go, Illinois needed a touchdown to complete a school-record comeback. Quarterback Brandon Peters received the snap and immediately fired the pass to wide receiver Caleb Reams. The pass was batted away, and Spartan Stadium rejoiced all around. But then a flag was thrown. Pass interference on Michigan State is announced and new life for Illinois. Two plays later, with the clock winding down under 10 seconds, Peters rolled out, surveyed the field and found tight end Daniel Barker for the game-winning touchdown.

The 37-34 win sealed a bowl berth for the 6-4 Illini with two regular-season games still remaining, adding the sweet reward of a bowl game to what has already been the most successful season of the Lovie Smith era.

Saturday’s game did not start well, as Michigan State jumped out to a 28-3 lead. Illinois looked lethargic on offense and could not stop both the running or passing game from a Michigan State offense that doesn’t exactly carry a lethal profile.

Things changed when defensive back Sydney Brown picked off Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke for his first of two interceptions on the day, and Illinois quickly moved down the field, striking for six with a 46-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, making the score 28-10.

Imatorbhebhe was just getting started, however, as he opened the fourth quarter with an 83-yard touchdown catch, making the score 31-17 in favor of the Spartans.

Illinois kept up the pace after forcing a quick three-and-out, moving down the field and scoring another touchdown to cut the deficit to seven courtesy of an 8-yard run from running back Reggie Corbin.

The defense then recovered a fumble, setting up a drive to take the lead, but Peters threw an interception that seemed as though it might derail the comeback.

Sydney came up huge again, as Lewerke’s off-line pass hit Sydney’s mitts like a missile, and the Canadian defensive back did the rest, zooming past every Spartan offensive player on a 76-yard touchdown return.

Illinois looked all set to tie the game, but the previous hero, kicker James McCourt, whose field goal lifted Illinois over No. 6 Wisconsin, missed the extra point, and the score still sat in favor of Michigan State, 31-30.

The Spartans added a field goal, putting the game in the Illini’s hands, down four with three minutes to go; only a touchdown would suffice.

The offense went to work and began driving up the field but found itself backed up facing fourth-and-17 with just under two minutes remaining. The Spartans, contrary to what many other teams would do in that situation, did not sit their entire defensive backfield at the first down distance, instead playing the down straight up. That gave Imatorbhebhe the chance to come through again and he took advantage, making a catch 37 yards down the field to move the chains.

Running back Dre Brown’s number was called on the following two plays, and the tailback got the ball all the way down to the one, miraculously breaking a tackle when it looked like he would be stopped for a big loss with Illinois out of timeouts.

Dre’s efforts set up the eventual throw to Reams that was flagged and the game-winning touchdown two plays later.

The 25-point comeback marked the largest in program history, as Illinois extended its winning streak to four games. Peters had his best statistical game of the season, as did Imatorbhebhe, with the former throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns while the latter posted 178 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions.

The Illini defense came up big as well, intercepting Lewerke three times and recovering an additional fumble, despite being without captain linebacker Jake Hansen due to injury.

Everything is trending upward and fast when it comes to Illinois football these days, and the orange and blue still have two more games to add to the program’s most successful season in half a decade.

@MilesP_H

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Editors note: This article has been updated to include a photo and the headline has been updated.